Turning the Tables on a Coffee Journalist

Jimmy

Jimmy Sherfey is a journalist who writes for coffee industry trade journals such as Roast Magazine and culinary websites such as Eater.com.

How long have you been writing about coffee and how did you get started?

I’ve been writing about coffee for a little over two years now. I first started out when Jeff Taylor from PT’s Coffee let me and photographer Nate Robinson meet up with him in El Salvador during one of his sourcing trips. To go to coffee’s origin and see firsthand how many steps go into quality coffee is not unlike the moment you realize that coffee is good. There is this whole world to which you are oblivious and suddenly you happen upon it, and only want to experience more of it.

Prior to that Central America trip, my little brother, Jeff, was the one who introduced me to amazing coffee. When we both lived in Athens, GA in 2010, I remember thinking it odd that he was going to “cup” coffee in the warehouse with the 1000 Faces people. It’s just coffee, right?

When Jeff moved to Chicago, I always visited him at the cafe he worked at in Wicker Park, The Wormhole Coffee. They had a very good crew and it was inspiring to see a fun, intelligent group of kids who were actually serious about making good coffee.

How is writing about coffee different from other food or beverage categories?

You could spend a lifetime learning about the intricacies of coffee. It’s been said that one can find the entire universe within the subcontinent of India. I’ve never been to India, but if there is truth to that, I feel like coffee is the India of the food and beverage realm. If there’s another drink or gustatory ritual that offers a greater level of complexity, or a more comprehensive inclusion of citizens across the human race, I haven’t encountered it. Carrboro Coffee’s tagline is that “Coffee Unites the World,” and I couldn’t agree more. Maybe tea tells a similar story, but I don’t think I have the energy to pore through it at this point. Now that I’m down the coffee rabbit hole, I’m excited to explore the numerous tangential worlds attached to it. I mean, as an industry we could write volumes about the socio-economic implications alone.

How would you compare the level of interest in coffee-related content among your readership to other types of content?

If you spend much of your time thinking about, writing about, and drinking coffee, it’s pretty easy to get tunnel vision. That’s a common gripe on the roaster side of the industry, too. And I get it. That said, there’s a reason that coffee is so universally appreciated. People see the word and get excited about it. Writing for online publications, it’s like a silver bullet meta-tag. We could give any coffee-related article the simple title of “coffee,” and I suspect we would neither lose nor gain readership under that rule.

What types of topics seem to be most interesting to your readers or elicit the most response?

Since coffee is super versatile, anytime you marry it with some sort of special interest you’re bound to pique interest among readers that straddle both worlds: The intersection of coffee and the outdoors, coffee and cycling, coffee through an anthropological lens. Our culture is such that people like to have a good lay of the land with respect to the proverbial icebergs, even if we don’t move past the tips of them. At its worst, news is just sort of a glancing whip-around of the big stories, so at the bar we can all say “Oh yeah, I know about that.” So any kind of tectonic shift or larger trend will attract more people so that they can understand where a given subject is headed. For mainstream audiences looking at the world of coffee it’s: What’s going to happen with Keurig, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, etc.? Or what’s this whole third-wave thing about. Also anything Drizzy-Drake-related—which I’m all for. I’d love to know Drake’s coffee ritual.

I don’t want to sound like a complete pessimist, it is very heartening to see a passionate audience for general media programs like Serial that are really willing to delve into a subject and look at it from every angle. If anyone wants to develop a similar concept for the coffee supply chain, hit me up.

What advice would you give to coffee professionals (on a whole) to help them better connect with coffee drinkers?

Ask yourself, “What are some things that I currently don’t completely understand in the world of coffee?” and then try to find some answers with someone else, whether they are more unlearned or expert than yourself. In most cases coffee pros dive leagues deeper than the people they are serving. When you come up for air, let your guests serve you by making them comfortable enough to communicate what it is they don’t understand. If you have an answer, no need to pontificate, just say what you know and maybe temper that with a related question you might not be so well versed in. I’d say that’s the essential difference between discovery and dogma.

How do you see coffee evolving on a global scale?

There is one marketing platitude that I hear ad nauseam but still find some truth in: the millennial generation wants to know more about this pretty magical beverage that they are consuming. Coffee consumption is expected to grow, because more of the next generation will be drinking it. This also brings up an interesting dilemma: because of plant pathogens and lack of proper remuneration, the quality coffee supply appears to be dwindling, and this next generation of quality-minded coffee drinkers are faced with the very real question of where it will come from. So it’s a question of financial, social, and environmental sustainability. It’s been said those of the millennial generation are more apt to wear their hearts on their sleeves, and communicate feelings and desires to peers more readily. That’s a good thing; hopefully it translates to their business strategy. We need transparency to solve this problem, and how the coming generation addresses it will be yet another chapter in the epic story of coffee.

How would you describe the role of media in the global specialty coffee conversation?

As with any problem, all the various obstacles facing the world of coffee at present have complex root systems. I don’t believe any of these problems can be truly solved without strong communication. In its purest form, media is the bedrock of communication, but as somebody involved in the business of “Media with a capital M,” I can tell you we don’t always tap into this essential wellspring of communication. Reporters can be too harried, the goals of editors or producers can be too narrowly defined, and the pay structures don’t always support in-depth reporting. There should still be gatekeepers of journalism upholding core principles, and providing examples to the audience.

That said, virtually anyone can communicate efficiently, effectively, and honestly, using the media that is literally at their fingertips. Whether it’s in visual, oral, or written format the lines of communication are wide open. All we have to do is try.